PRIM to BIM: The past, present and hopeful future of Architecture Islands

Thanks so much for all of the thoughts and comments many of you have shared.  I’ve combined several comments to the original post in order to help clarify a few points.

First of all – I’m definitely not leaving Second Life or virtual worlds!  I’m not disenchanted with the platform by any means, and I fully intend to remain active in Second Life.  These are exciting times for virtual worlds, and I remain as busy as ever designing and developing content in Second Life and opensim as an independent consultant.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I tried to be clear about this, but I want to reiterate that I don’t hold anything against Linden Lab for not enabling mesh imports. It’s no secret that I would love to see this feature added some way, somehow, some day, and its what every single newbie architect or designer asks about.  But I do sincerely appreciate the complexity of it, and I’m grateful for what Second Life already has to offer. Mesh imports might never happen in SL, and that’s fine. It was never designed to be a tool for professional architecture practice. That’s a property I personally, if mistakenly, assigned to it, and if it means working in alternative platforms like realxtend or Blue Mars to import CAD models, there’s nothing wrong with that. But that doesn’t take anything away from what Linden Lab has been able to achieve with Second Life, or the value it continues to provide.

Even if we had mesh imports, I still think realtime, immersive, in-world prim-based modeling would remain prevalent, since it provides such a powerful method of conceptualizing, designing, modeling, and collaborating in a way that no other architecture software allows. Also, without prim-sized granularity, Wikitecture wouldn’t have happened, and realtime, immersive design collaboration would be lost.

It would be a great misunderstanding to read the original post and take away the perception that I’ve given up on Second Life’s use in professional practice, since the reality is quite the contrary. There are some incredible projects on the boards by AEC-related organizations large and small, and these folks are in it to win it. Serious investment is being poured into both Second Life and opensim projects by organizations attempting to leverage the aspects of a virtual environment that work well, even if they can’t import meshes. I think we would all be surprised by the number of projects throughout the grids that go on quietly leveraging virtual worlds in professional practice without feeling the need to publicize it or make a big noise about it. Second Life is still ripe for AEC-industry applications, and the best is yet to come.

Specifically, I think there are primarily three kinds of real-life architecture applications in Second Life that seem to work.  First, there are the larger, more comprehensive real-life architecture projects that have a serious budget, a sim or two, and usually (though not always) a professional developer assisting the project. Again, I believe there are more projects like this throughout the grid than we’re aware of, and I think they’re using SL to great effect.  Then there is the use of Second Life as a schematic design tool. I use it in my own practice on a daily basis, no matter what I’m designing, and I think its incredibly useful in early stage schematic design development. Finally, there’s collaboration – where the immersive experience combines with the multi-user capacity of SL and the ability to build, modify, save and retrieve design ideas in real-time. This is a game-changer for architectural design, imho, and these very features are what Studio Wikitecture was built upon. Second Life is hardly ‘flawed’ for such applications – in fact, it was requisite to its emergence, insofar as Wikitecture really couldn’t have happened anywhere but on the Second Life platform.

However, the value proposition in providing subdivided land parcels for architects and designers as an incubator is no longer as necessary or helpful as it was 3 years ago when there were so many open questions, and such a degree of wide-eyed optimism and naivety that virtual worlds and CAD applications would soon collide. They didn’t collide, and they probably never will – not in Second Life anyway. But wherever or whenever CAD or BIM and virtual worlds do come together, that’s where we’ll have a new set of questions to answer, and that’s where we’ll need a new incubator.

We’ve seen the composition of Architecture Islands transform over the years, from bunches of failed or sloppy replication experiments into almost exclusive explorations of purely virtual design. This transition has echoed my own transformation, as I’ve grown to love virtual design as much or more than practicing architecture. You really can build just about anything you can imagine using prims, and I continue to be blown away by some of the most stunning creations I’ve ever experienced – in physical or virtual reality alike. Toward that end, I think mesh imports might be overrated, and I’ve said as much in several posts. People might get frustrated if they’re trying to replicate that dental clinic their firm is working on, for example -one prim at a time – but if they’re exploring purely virtual design, prims are actually quite liberating, and much closer to sketching with pen and paper than CAD drafting is.

But does the exploration of purely virtual architecture need an ‘incubator’ to grow it? I don’t think so. The entire fabric of SL is already one vast incubator of virtual design, and it hardly needs an ‘Architecture Island’ to help foster something that is already happening in every corner of the grid. It could thrive, perhaps, under a new model, or management, or some kind of business plan, but for me personally, as I review my priorities, I’ve recognized that the initial momentum or impetus that created Architecture Islands in the first place has faded. It seems only logical to refresh, restart, or purge the current model and either try something new or move on. I do believe that architecture in SL should be treated more like a liquid than a static artifact, and especially in these early days, you have to keep things fresh and keep moving, and keep trying out new ideas, or it quickly stagnates and dies. That’s what this is all about.

I should also clarify that Architecture Islands have always been (and continue to be) financially sustainable. The income balances the expenses, and renters are never very hard to find. I charge what I pay. Someone else could easily buy the sims and charge more, and make some money on it perhaps, but I’m personally not interested in managing that, and have decided to focus on my design practice instead.

In sum, the conclusion I’ve come to is that the kinds of projects that are finding form in Second Life have a very different set of requirements than public islands with sub-divided parcels can offer.  If anyone thinks that isn’t true, or wants to prove otherwise – the islands are yours!


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